Growing up is difficult work. Not just physical growth, but the growth that comes with living, living and learning. This episode, “The Sound of Thunder,” addresses the difficult nature of learning through growth, as Burnham and Saru discuss the Greek father of tragedy, Aeschylus, they remind each other that “he who learns must suffer.”
I could write this entire piece about Saru; that is how integral he is to this episode as he is the star and drives the entirety of the action of this story. We start with a voiceover from Saru discussing how we all come from somewhere and how we all carry that place with us wherever we go, no matter where life leads us. And his life soon takes a major turn; Discovery locates another mysterious signal and it’s emanating from his home planet, Kaminar, home to his race, the Kelpians, and one other race, the Ba’ul. As we’ve heard in the past, through Saru, the Kelpians are prey on his planet and the Ba’ul keep them submissive through their technologically advanced society. Both species believe in something called the Great Balance in which the Kelpians offer themselves for ritual sacrifice when they’ve reached a point in life called vahar’ai in order to preserve the ecosystem of their planet. Saru has just recently realized that everything his people have been taught about the Great Balance is in fact a lie, and he’s pretty pissed and sassy regarding this gained knowledge; it has brought him a distinct level of pain. After returning to his homeworld with Burnham, Saru serendipitously meets his sister, who is now a priest, and the two discuss what has transpired in the 18 years since he left his homeworld. (Lotta backstory here) The Ba’ul detect Saru’s return and insist the Discovery and Captain Pike return him to the planet in order to avoid disrupting the Great Balance. Pike refuses, but Saru cannot leave his sister behind to suffer for his transgressions, and so beams back, into the hands of the Ba’ul.
2. Brothers and Sisters
After Saru returns to save his sister, Siranna, they both are the first Kelpians to see the Ba’ul in hundreds of years, and the Ba’ul are pretty gross. Almost insect-like with long fingers and hair, oh, and covered in a black, tar-like substance. Almost like the black, tar-like substance that consumed and killed Tasha Yar. This water-dwelling Ba’ul speaks with both Kelpians, revealing much of what Saru already knew about the species history and interaction with one another. Saru saves himself and his sister with a little ingenuity and, his now, killer instinct. This season has dealt with another pairing of brother and sister, Michael Burnham and Spock. By the end of this episode Michael is going back home, back to Vulcan, to help her brother. Just as Saru returned home to save his sister, Michael believes she needs to do the same in order to save her brother. I love a show that puts brother and sister relationships in the forefront. Generally, society tells us boys and girls should like different things and behave in different ways, which makes finding common ground more challenging than with same sex siblings. Look at Bart and Lisa Simpson; they have virtually opposing beliefs and personalities, but when they’re stranded on an island in the Lord of the Flies parody episode “Das Bus,” they have each other’s backs. Family ties us to what we once were and shows us what we can; Star Trek has always done a quality job of exploring those familial relationships in an interesting way and Discovery continues that tradition here.
3. Religious beliefs
Saru reveals that Kelpian priests collaborate with the Ba’ul to keep the Great Balance, that his father was a priest, and that his sister is currently a priest on his home planet. By the end of this episode the Ba’ul are preparing to commit genocide in order to prevent the Kelpians from becoming hunters, but the Red Angel intervenes, and reveals itself to Saru and Siranna. Thanks to Saru’s enhanced vision, he can better see the Angel, and it looks like a person, a human, in a technologically advanced suit. Siranna calls the Angel a savior, and Saru believes the Angel sent the signal to save the Kelpians from a false life, and to lead them into a life of knowledge. Captain Pike and Tyler discuss the Angel after Saru’s revelatory insights into its appearance and Tyler is concerned that it is a time traveling being pursuing its own agenda. Pike seems less concerned and asks Tyler if he’s paranoid. But really, what if one individual is deciding what species deserve to be oppressed, such as the Ba’ul, and what species deserve to be provided with knowledge of the outside universe, such as the Kelpians? Can, or should, one individual, divine or not, make those decisions on their own? We’ve been led to believe the Angel is benevolent, look at the name bestowed upon it, but are scientific Starfleet members being blinded by beliefs rooted in religion? It seems like a healthy dose of skepticism is needed here, even if that skepticism makes Tyler look like a jerk in the eyes of the crew of the Discovery.Continued below
4. General Order One (or the Prime Directive)
This is the guiding principle of Starfleet. It states that its members are prohibited from interfering with the internal and natural development of alien civilizations; in this episode, this is exactly what Pike and the crew of Discovery decide to do, interfere with the internal and natural development of the Kelpians and Ba’ul, spitting in the face of all that Starfleet holds dear, by prematurely triggering a major developmental change, the vahar’ai among all Kelpians. Yes, perhaps they were being suppressed by the Ba’ul, but what right does Starfleet have to interfere with the natural development of a planet and its inhabitants? A major element of Starfleet within the Star Trek universe is its rules, and its sometimes annoying habit of sticking to those rules when you want emotion to win out. This is a major violation of those rules and all things Trek.
5. Random Thoughts
Overall, I was not a fan of this episode. It was visually stunning and it truly gave Doug Jones the opportunity to shine in a beautiful and nuanced performance, but at its core, it just felt all wrong. Starfleet interfering in the development of more than one species, and seemingly rational and scientific members of Discovery’s crew believing one being, an Angel, should be leading and driving their actions. Did we learn nothing from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, and Sybok’s search for God? As Kirk says, “What does God need with a starship?” Perhaps I’m being too cynical here. We will see. But, this does lead me to another question, perhaps irrelevant, does Michael Burnham know Sybok, Spock’s half-brother? Sybok also had visions, as Discovery now tells us Spock also had, of and entity he believed to be God.
Saru learns more about his purpose in the world in this episode, Dr. Culber is trying to learn more about his purpose in the world in this episode, and everyone is trying to understand the Angel’s purpose in this episode. This learning and understanding has led to suffering, perhaps it will eventually lead to joy.